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Graziadio v. Culinary Institute of America

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

March 17, 2016

CATHLEEN GRAZIADIO, Plaintiff-Appellant,
CULINARY INSTITUTE OF AMERICA, SHAYNAN GARRIOCH in her individual capacity, LOREEN GARDELLA in her individual capacity, Defendants-Appellees

         Argued January 25, 2016

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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          Plaintiff Cathleen Graziadio, an employee at the Culinary Institute of America (" CIA" ), took leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (" FMLA" ) to care for a son suffering from diabetes and took additional leave a few weeks later when her second son broke his leg. During Graziadio's second term of absence, CIA took issue with the paperwork supporting Graziadio's leave and refused to allow her to return until she provided new documentation. Communication between Graziadio and CIA broke down, and CIA ultimately fired Graziadio for abandoning her job. Graziadio subsequently sued CIA and two of her supervisors in the Southern District of New York (Romá n, J.), alleging interference and retaliation under the FMLA and discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (" ADA" ). The District Court granted summary judgment to defendants, finding that Graziadio could establish neither that she was wrongfully denied FMLA leave nor that CIA's actions were retaliatory or discriminatory. We conclude that Graziadio has presented genuine disputes as to material fact with respect to her claims of FMLA interference and FMLA retaliation, but that she has failed to adduce evidence supporting a claim of discrimination under the ADA. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the district court in part and vacate and remand it in part.

         NATHANIEL K. CHARNY, Charny & Associates, Rhinebeck, NY, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

         JOSPEH J. LYNETT (Michael A. Frankel on the brief), Jackson Lewis P.C., White Plains, NY, for Defendants-Appellees.

         Before: CALABRESI, LYNCH, LOHIER, Circuit Judges.


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          CALABRESI, Circuit Judge

         Cathleen Graziadio was fired from her position at the Culinary Institute of America shortly after she took leave to provide medical care for her sons and engaged in a protracted dispute about the validity of that leave. She subsequently brought suit under the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, alleging that she had been wrongfully denied leave, retaliated against for taking leave, and discriminated against on the basis of her association with a disabled individual. The district court granted summary judgment to defendants on all claims. We sustain the court's rejection of Graziadio's discrimination claim, but we find that Graziadio has presented sufficient evidence to withstand summary judgment on her claims under the Family and Medical Leave Act . We therefore affirm in part, vacate

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in part, and remand for further proceedings.


         From 2007 until the events described below, Cathleen Graziadio worked as a Payroll Administrator at the Culinary Institute of America (" CIA" ), processing student payroll and helping with students' administrative needs. On June 6, 2012, Graziadio's seventeen-year-old son, Vincent, was hospitalized as a result of previously undiagnosed Type I diabetes, and Graziadio promptly informed her supervisor, Loreen Gardella, that she would need to leave work to take care of him. Seeking to have her absence designated as leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (" FMLA" ), 29 U.S.C. § § 2601 et seq., she asked Mary Maffia, the payroll employee who processed FMLA documentation, to provide her with any necessary FMLA paperwork, which Maffia forwarded later that day. Graziadio returned to work on June 18, 2012, and, on or about June 27, 2012, submitted a medical certification supporting her need for leave to care for Vincent.

         That same day, June 27, Graziadio's twelve-year-old son, T.J., fractured his leg playing basketball and underwent surgery for the injury. Again, Graziadio promptly notified Gardella that she would need immediate leave to care for her son and that she expected to return the week of July 9, " at least part time." J. App'x 239. When July 9 arrived, Gardella asked for an update on Graziadio's return, to which Graziadio responded that she would need to work a reduced, three-day week schedule until mid-to-late August and could return on Thursday, July 12, if that schedule was approved. She also asked, as she had in prior emails to Gardella, if there was " any further documentation that [CIA] may need from me." J. App'x 250. At this point, Gardella reached out to Shaynan Garrioch, CIA's Director of Human Resources, concerning Graziadio's request and the appropriate response to it.

         Despite numerous calls and emails by Graziadio seeking to find out when she could resume work, neither Gardella nor Garrioch responded to Graziadio until July 17. Garrioch then sent Graziadio a letter stating that Graziadio's FMLA paperwork did not justify her absences from the workplace and that Graziadio must " provide updated paperwork to this office which addresses this deficiency." J. App'x 258. Garrioch also noted that Graziadio " ha[d] continued to be absent from the workplace due to the health condition of another one of [her] children" and that she would " also need to submit paperwork for this time off from work as well." Id. Garrioch added that this paperwork had to be submitted within seven days for Graziadio's absences to be approved.

         On getting this letter, Graziadio sent Garrioch a series of emails attempting to explain her situation and to determine what " paperwork" CIA wanted. She noted that she had repeatedly " asked if the Culinary would need further paperwork regarding [T.J.'s] accident to take the time off" but had " not received any reply to any of these emails and phone calls," and that she was " not clear on what paperwork you would like me to obtain," as she had not received any FMLA forms from CIA to be given to T.J.'s doctor. J. App'x 260. She also stated her intention to contact T.J.'s doctor " to obtain a note for the three days a week reduced schedule," " under the assumption that this will be enough paperwork" because she " ha[d] not heard from the CIA regarding what paperwork they specifically want." J. App'x 264. Lastly, Graziadio made clear that she planned to return to work the following week on that reduced schedule.

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          Garrioch responded on July 20 by emailing Graziadio " an informational brochure from the department of labor to assist you in understanding the FMLA statute and the CIA's position with respect to your leave." J. App'x 266. Garrioch then reiterated the asserted deficiencies in the certification submitted for Vincent, stating that the " certification that you did submit stated [only that] there would be doctor's appointments every three months," but " you have been absent from the workplace since early June, save for a few partial days near the end of June." Id. She also noted that " [i]f there is other documentation pertaining to your other son and absences required from the office for his care, you must provide that documentation as well, as we have no paperwork on any medical need pertaining to your absence for his care to date." Id.

         Graziadio replied later that day, reaffirming her need to work a reduced schedule, promising that T.J.'s doctor would " provide . . . a note to this effect," and requesting " for I believe at least the sixth time now FMLA paperwork for him," if Garrioch wanted specific FMLA forms completed. J. App'x 276. She also restated her intention to return to work the next week. Garrioch wrote back three days later, insisting that CIA continued not to have paperwork justifying Graziadio's return to work and that she would not approve any schedule until new paperwork had been submitted. Garrioch also rejected the note from T.J.'s doctor, which Graziadio had sent in that morning, as failing to establish a " medical necessity for you to provide full time medical care." J. App'x 278. Finally, she announced that she would " no longer be able to discuss this matter over email," and asked Graziadio to " [p]lease provide . . . three dates/times for this week that you are available to come into work and meet with me" in person. Id.

         In an excruciating exchange, Graziadio and Garrioch then proceeded, over any number of days, to email back and forth about scheduling a meeting without actually arranging it: Garrioch would ask for dates and times, Graziadio would respond that she was " available whenever," Garrioch would again ask for specific times, Graziadio would insist that she was " available any time or day," and so on. Early on in this exchange, Graziadio also forwarded Garrioch an updated FMLA certification for Vincent, but Garrioch did not acknowledge receipt of the certification or otherwise respond to that email. At another point, Graziadio attempted to circumvent the circular exchange by simply " requesting to return to work" on a " full time regular schedule." J. App'x 284. Garrioch rejected this request and again insisted that Graziadio appear for a meeting before she could return to work.

         Ultimately, no one set a time for a meeting, and Graziadio, facing persistent involuntary leave, retained an attorney. Her lawyer, Joseph Ranni, sent a letter to CIA's president on August 7, in which he reiterated that Graziadio wanted to return to work but could not do so because Garrioch found her FMLA documentation deficient and would not identify what other documentation was required. On August 30, 2012, Ranni had a conversation with CIA's counsel, in which, according to Ranni, " CIA continued to take the position that Ms. Graziadio would not be returned to work because she had not provided sufficient support to justify her absences" and insisted that " it was not the employer's obligation to explain what was missing from the paperwork and instead that it was Ms. Graziadio's obligation to comply with the statute." J. App'x 713. CIA also advised that it " would no longer communicate with Ms. Graziadio and all communications must occur between counsel." Id.

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          Later that day, CIA's attorney sent Ranni a follow-up email. It began by affirming that CIA's " understanding is that Ms. Graziadio wants to return to work," and stating that if Graziadio wanted to return to work, " she must contact her supervisor to arrange for her return to work." J. App'x 719. However, " [i]n the event Ms. Graziadio wants to return to work," it continued, " I also want to make perfectly clear Ms. Graziadio's obligation to submit FMLA medical certifications." Id. It then proceeded, for two paragraphs, to reiterate the alleged deficiencies in the medical documentation provided and to demand that Graziadio " provide two sufficient and complete FMLA medical certification forms" " by Monday," four days hence. Id. Ranni claims that, because he was being hospitalized for injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident, he did not see the email until September 4, at which point he and Graziadio began to formulate a response.

         CIA fired Graziadio one week later. On September 11, 2012, before Graziadio had responded to CIA's email, Garrioch sent Graziadio a letter announcing that she had been terminated for abandoning her position. Garrioch explained that Graziadio had been asked " through your attorneys . . . to return to work and to contact your supervisor to arrange a return to work date. . . . Based on the fact that you have not contacted your supervisor to arrange to return to work as of the date of this letter, it is obvious to us that you do not want to return to work." J. App'x 292. Accordingly, CIA was " processing an administrative termination of your employment effective as of the date of this letter." Id.

         Graziadio subsequently filed a complaint in the Southern District of New York (Romá n, J. ), bringing claims against CIA, Garrioch, and Gardella for interference with FMLA leave, FMLA retaliation, and associational discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (" ADA" ), 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(4). Defendants moved for summary judgment on all claims and, on March 20, 2015, the district court granted their motion in full. Graziadio v. Culinary Inst. of Am., No. 13 Civ. 1082 (NSR), 2015 WL 1344327 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 20, 2015). It first dismissed Graziadio's FMLA claims against Garrioch and Gardella individually, finding that neither qualified as an " employer" subject to liability under the FMLA. Next, it determined that Graziadio could not sustain her claims of FMLA interference because she had not been denied any leave to care for Vincent and, having failed to submit a medical certification form, had no entitlement to leave to care for T.J. Finally, it rejected Graziadio's FMLA retaliation and ADA discrimination claims, finding a) that defendants had proffered legitimate reasons for Graziadio's termination--namely, Graziadio's failure to comply with FMLA certification requirements and her failure to contact her supervisor to return to work, and b) that Graziadio had not shown these reasons to be pretextual. It consequently dismissed the case.

         Graziadio now appeals.


          This Court reviews a grant of summary judgment de novo, resolving all ambiguities and drawing all reasonable inferences against the moving party. Tolbert v. Smith, 790 F.3d 427, 434 (2d Cir. 2015). We will affirm the grant of summary judgment only where " there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Id. (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a)).

         A. FMLA Claims

         1. Individual Liability

         As a preliminary matter, Graziadio challenges the district court's conclusion

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that Garrioch does not constitute an " employer" under the FMLA and therefore cannot be held individually liable.[1] We agree with Graziadio because questions of material fact remain ...

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